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Use and Misuse of Internet Search Engines by High School Chemistry Students


Martha Gwen Sibert
Roanoke Valley Governor's School
Roanoke, VA

10/01/04 to 10/07/04

This paper examines the use of Internet search engines such as Google and Yahoo by high school chemistry students. Personal experience by the author indicates that too many high school students believe that if something is posted on a website it is true and factual. The paper includes examples of excellent references found using search engines as well as examples of completely erroneous or farfetched information found using these same engines. Some ways of teaching students how to discern "truth" from "fiction" will be presented, as well how they can be taught to tell the difference between information that is simply "opinion" and that which is based on scholarly work. Also, a comparison of the links some of the more popular search engines provide for a variety of chemistry queries are included.



Searching for information on the Internet can be both easy and difficult at the same time. It is an important skill that high school students need to develop as they prepare for college and for the world of work afterwards. This paper is the result of my own experiences and from conversations with other teachers who shake their heads and wonder aloud about how to get their students to evaluate the information on the millions of websites on the Internet BEFORE they use it. I decided that I would spend some time this summer to try to develop suitable guidelines and requirements to help my students at the Roanoke Valley Governor's School as they use Internet search engines, not only for my class but for other classes as well.

The Roanoke Valley Governor's School for Science and Technology (RVGS) is a regional school for gifted and highly achieving students that is supported by seven area school systems with a total of thirteen high schools. The schools range from very small (about 300 total students grades 9-12) to relatively large (about 1900 students grades 9-12). Enrollment during the school year 2003-2004 was approximately 250 students in grades 9-12. Some of the students live on farms and help with chores before they leave for an hour-long ride on a school bus to get to RVGS while others live in the affluent suburban or urban neighborhoods and drive to school and still others live in subsidized housing projects and ride local school buses. Students are selected to attend RVGS by their home school system although a common application form is used by all systems. Also, students must be enrolled in a public high school in order to be eligible to attend RVGS. The majority of students who take the second-year chemistry course are sophomores (one half to two-thirds) with the rest juniors and a few seniors. Again, all of the students have been identified a gifted in science and/or math. More information about the Roanoke Valley Governor's School can be found at

Most of the material for the second-year chemistry course (formerly called Advanced Chemical Topics) can be found at For a variety of reasons, for the school year 2004-2005 the course will be changed to Advanced Placement Chemistry.

Last year, all of the students in my three second-year chemistry classes had a computer at home and access to the Internet. This has been the case for several years, so over the past four or five years I have given more and more online homework assignments and projects that require the use of Internet search engines such as Google and Yahoo. It is my observation that far too many high school students are of the opinion that if something is posted on a website, any website, then it must be true fact. Every year students come across websites such as and and actually believe that these are serious sites. Granted that the majority of my students are not fooled by something so blatantly "off the wall" as the first link, I have had information from the second one turned in as being really true.

The main online homework assignment is a weekly assignment that I call "Questions of the Week" or "QOTW" (see and this is where I find the most "misuse" of search engines. Each week two to five questions usually related to the unit of study at the time are posted on QOTW page. Specific directions are given at the top of the page regarding what kind of information is needed, how to format the page and how to save the file. These questions are posted by the Sunday before their date and the answers are due via email by the following Monday evening by midnight. For example, QOTW for the week of August 30, 2004 were due by midnight on September 6.

It is these assignments that present the greatest challenge to many of my students. First, even though I take class time to go over the questions the Monday they are assigned and often give hints as to what would be appropriate phrases to put into a search engine to get good links, some students either do not pay attention in class or do not take advantage of the help offered. I always check to make sure that the answers for each QOTW can be found on at least two websites. I also tell them that if after 20 minutes of searching without success, then they should email or instant message me for help. Some students, however, spend far too long searching for the answers to the questions and instead of emailing me for help, find a site where it looks like something related to the question and copy whole paragraphs and paste them into the document. These sometimes include references to figures and/or tables and graphs that are on the website, but were not included in the copy and paste. When I read what was turned in I can tell that there was no paying attention to what was put there.



One example of a question where some students found erroneous information was the following question about Linus Pauling from the Feb 23, 2004 assignment that was posted during the week of his birthday anniversary.


  • Question: What did Linus Pauling do that earned him the high honor of being awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry? What influence did this work have on later developments in chemistry?


    • Answer:  Linus Pauling was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his research into the nature of the chemical bonds and its applications to the elucidation of the structure of complex substances. (

      Answer:  Linus Pauling won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1954. He was awarded the prize for his work on genetic influences in relation to the atomic structure of proteins in hemoglobin. He discovered that genetic defect is the cause for sickle cell anemia. His work was the basis for the study of human genes and diseases. (

    The first answer comes from the Nobel Prize website and is the citation that accompanied his Nobel Prize and the second answer, which is wrong, is from the website of an organization called the Women's International Center. Of course, the information itself isn't actually wrong as Pauling did do these things, but they don't represent the overall work for which he received this prize.

Other examples that illustrate both good answers and poor answers along with the links for the source of the answers can be found at this link.


Search Engines:

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